With a prison sentence of no less than 45 years—and possibly life—looming, convicted killer Vernon McCormick looked at the bright side of things.
"If this had never happened, I would probably be dead, just because of life, just because of guilt by association," McCormick, his face heavily tattooed and his wrists and ankles shackled, said during a rambling monologue just before he was sentenced to 85 years in prison Wednesday.
McCormick killed 14-year-old Deont’e Lesley in January 2011. McCormick was out to avenge the slaying of a friend when he sprayed Lesley's house with bullets. Lesley was inside the house playing video games during the gun attack. He was killed and two other youths were wounded.
Lesley, a junior high school student, was not involved in the earlier murder or McCormick's gang feud.
A jury found McCormick guilty of murder, aggravated battery with a firearm and the aggravated discharge of a firearm in July. At his sentencing Wednesday, McCormick insisted he didn't kill Lesley.
"I'm sorry for y'all loss, but I still stand here innocent," McCormick told Lesley's family and friends. A young woman on McCormick's side of the courtroom then moaned, "He didn't do it," burst into tears and ran out to the hall.
Lesley's mother, Antoinette Walker, earlier in the hearing fled to the hallway and—overcome with emotion—was rushed to Provena St. Joseph Medical Center. After the sentencing, her family said they were heading to the hospital to see how she was faring.
But first they endured McCormick's bizarre, meandering statement. He began by telling the packed courtroom, "I don't know what to say. There's really not much to say." And then proceeded to say quite a bit.
McCormick suggested that "certain things in life happen for a reason," then noted there actually may not have been any reason for Lesley's death, or if there was a reason he didn't know what it might be.
McCormick then empathized with Lesley's mother, saying, "I feel her pain. I know what she is going through.
"He's gone. I'm sorry," McCormick said of Lesley. "I'm fixing to be gone too."
McCormick, who racked up a number of arrests in his young life, explained that his checkered past resulted from the absence of his father, Vernon McCormick Sr., who is also locked up at the Will County jail. The elder McCormick was arrested early Monday for allegedly breaking into a car in downtown Joliet.
"I grew up without a father," McCormick said. "A woman can't teach a boy to be a man, and that's why I turned to the streets."
Not to mention the brother his mother never gave him.
"I always wanted a brother," McCormick said. "I never had a brother."
But he did have neighbors, and one of them, Randolph "Ronald" Guy, made quite an impression on McCormick.
"Growing up on the east side of Joliet, Washington Street, I grew up seeing a lot of stuff I wasn't supposed to see," he said. "I seen the rims, I seen the cars."
And when Guy and his mother moved to Washington Street, McCormick said the new neighbor told him, "No matter what you do in life, don't follow in our footsteps, because the footsteps they doing will only lead to the grave or the penitentiary."
"A year later he was in the grave, and now I'm in the penitentiary," McCormick said of Guy, who was shot to death during a bloody, prolonged 2003 feud that police have said was fueled by a dispute over stolen car rims.
Will County Sheriff's Department Deputy Chief Ken Kaupas credited both detectives and prosecutors for their work on the case.
"They did a great job on this thing, they were very dedicated to this investigation," Kaupas said of the effort to unravel the Lesley killing, which he called a "heartless crime."
"There was a lot of circumstantial evidence in this case" that police and prosecutors had to piece together, Kaupas said.
Judge Amy Bertani-Tomczak was apparently unimpressed by McCormick's speech and sent him away for nearly double the minimum sentence. But McCormick maintained his positive outlook.
"Even though I'm up here crying, I'm going to stay strong," McCormick said, inviting his friends and family to visit him in prison.
"I'm at peace because it could be worse," he said. "Like I said, I'm alive. Can't complain."